By Valerie Hanna’18
For student analysts at the Quad Innovation Partnership, the Coronavirus pandemic brought new urgency to community projects. Quad is a joint initiative that provides consulting services to local for-profit, nonprofit, and municipal partners. Teams are comprised of students and faculty advisors from Colorado College, University of Colorado College at Colorado Springs, the United States Air Force Academy, and Pikes Peak Community College. Student analysts are paid for their work, and partners receive quality, interdisciplinary consulting from students who are connected to the local community. Currently in its fifth year, Quad has received local and statewide recognition and now sustains paid research and work opportunities for more than 100 students each year.
Throughout the 2020 Spring Semester, Quad teams worked for five clients in Colorado Springs. Of these, two projects were extended from previous assignments that clients chose to pursue further. “Quad provides invaluable experience for students in a professional workplace setting where their work leads to real results you can see in the community,” shares Executive Director Jake Eichengreen. “It’s been equally rewarding to see how these students have built real relationships with the community, and we’re seeing this through contracts with repeat clients.”
In 2019, a team of Quad students working with Innovations in Aging developed recommendations for how developers can build affordable, community-minded housing for seniors. That research informed the development of a new, 280-unit affordable housing complex near downtown. This spring, the developer re-hired Quad to come up with specific recommendations for how the development can offer the best quality of life for its residents. Colorado Springs Utilities continued its partnership with Quad, working with student analysts to strategize avenues to increase engagement with Colorado Springs youth, who are future rate-payers. The City of Colorado Springs is also a repeat client, and rehired Quad to consult on how Colorado Springs can maximize partnerships between institutions of higher learning and the private sector around smart technology development, both to improve services and to build the local and regional economy.
Colorado College is a first-time client, and partnered with the Quad during the Spring 2020 semester to develop a peer mentorship program for female-identifying staff. Finally, two Quad teams worked with Partners for Children’s Mental Health, an organization of Children’s Hospital, Colorado, to research best practices for schoolwide suicide prevention education and personal student safety plans, respectively. Results from the research Quad collected informed staff hires, and will be published with the behavioral health strategic plan to better guide suicide prevention and mental health efforts across Colorado.
In March, Quad teams shifted to remote consulting to mitigate the Coronavirus’ spread. Project groups, which usually met twice a week at a local coffee shop, switched to virtual check-ins.
“While virtual meetings were new to us, remote work is consistent with a traditional consulting model,” Eichengreen says, adding that larger films rely heavily on teleconferencing, serving clients across the nation and the globe. “Student analysts working at Quad are likely going to have to work remotely at some point in their career, regardless of the field they choose,” says Eichengreen.
All Quad projects continued via teleconferencing and phone calls, and teams successfully wrapped up their projects on schedule in mid-May. But for the two teams working with Partners for Children’s Mental Health, the pandemic’s challenges were more than just communication logistics. Colorado has one of the 10 highest rates of youth suicide nationwide, and El Paso County has the highest rate in the state. Quad’s focus group, middle- and high-school students, is a particularly vulnerable age group. Young people rely on strong social networks and face-to-face contact, and with schools closed, physical distancing can feel even more isolating. Quad analysts had been working in the schools, consulting with administrators and school counselors across districts in the region to better understand community needs and develop a strategy to implement best practices, so with the schools closed, communication became difficult.
Quad was working on developing a peer-to-peer mentorship model wherein participants write letters to one another to combat feelings of isolation. These efforts have been particularly effective in veteran communities, and Quad proposed implementing a similar model in middle- and high-school school settings, in addition to in-person student support groups. In consideration of the possibility of long-term social distancing, the students also developed recommendations for texting services similar to a 24/7 crisis hotline, and other virtual support structures to serve at-risk students.
“This pandemic has made it very clear that mental health access is essential,” says Settie Harrison ’20, who worked with Partners for Children’s Mental Health alongside Caroline James ’20, Andre Dufresne ’21, and several other students from CC, UCCS, USAFA, and PPCC. “But we need to be proactive, not just reactive in our approach. This project aims to do just that; we provided a scalable program to Children’s Hospital, which they will then be able to help local schools implement.”
Quad analysts felt the emotional challenges of physical distancing themselves, both in their professional and personal lives. Quad shifted to remote consulting around the same time that Colorado College switched to remote learning, and “all of a sudden I was cooking in the same space where I was sleeping, where I was studying, where I was consulting,” says Dufresne. “It was tough, but also good to be able to call friends, to know we were in this together.”
In-person meetings provided a welcome opportunity to share and learn with students from different backgrounds. “I joined Quad because I wanted to give back to the Colorado Springs community and work with new people. Almost all of my peers at CC came from high school, or maybe a gap year program. Working with other college students from across Colorado Springs was an important space for me to connect and collaborate outside the CC bubble,” adds Dufresne.
Several graduating seniors have moved on from Quad, but they left with valuable hard and soft skills. “Quad taught me to work as part of a team to meet tight deadlines. Consulting was a lot like working on the Block Plan: small project teams, highly collaborative, and really interdisciplinary.”
Harrison shares that while her educational path was somewhat circuitous, Quad gave her direction and opened up new options she didn’t know existed. “My experience working with the Children’s Hospital showed me how expansive the medical field is,” she says. “Now I’m planning to pursue a master’s in public health, because of Quad.”
Over the summer, Quad analysts shifted their focus to two community-scale research projects. These assignments are intended for a broad audience to support intentional, informed and data-driven community decision-making in the wake of COVID-19. One study is exploring public trust and public safety in today’s Colorado Springs. The second project is an examination of organizational resilience, exploring how to position nonprofits and small businesses to be able to respond to changing circumstances effectively and rapidly, especially in these uncertain times.